I looked at the Online Etymology Dictionary and it seemed unclear to me whether the bird's name comes from the action, or vice versa, or even if they are etymologically related. Are they related and if so, how?

Here are the entries:

swallow (n.1)
type of migratory bird (family Hirundinidae), Old English swealwe "swallow," from Proto-Germanic *swalwon (cognates: Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Swedish svala, Danish svale, Middle Dutch zwalewe, Dutch zwaluw, Old High German swalawa, German Schwalbe), from PIE *swol-wi- (cognates: Russian solowej, Slovak slavik, Polish słowik "nightingale"). The etymological sense is disputed. Popularly regarded as harbingers of summer; swallows building nests on or near a house is considered good luck.

swallow (n.2)
"an act of swallowing," 1822, from swallow (v.). In late Old English and Middle English it meant "gulf, abyss, hole in the earth, whirlpool," also, in Middle English, "throat, gullet." Compare Old Norse svelgr "whirlpool," literally "devourer, swallower." Meaning "as much as one can swallow at once, mouthful" is from 1861.

  • 5
    looking at the two entries it seems pretty obvious they are not cognates at all. the verb: 'Old English swelgan... probably from PIE root *swel- (1) "to eat, drink" '. The bird: 'Old English swealwe...from PIE *swol-wi-'. Sure they're pronounced identically in Modern English, but so are meat (the food) and meet (the verb).
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 22:57
  • 5
    They're not related. The verb is related to a different noun swallow, which means 'A deep hole or opening in the earth; a pit, gulf, abyss. Obs.', with only one current usage: 'An opening or cavity, such as are common in limestone formations, through which a stream disappears underground: also called swallow-pit, swallow-hole, and locally swallet.' This appears to be derived from the verb. Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 22:58
  • 1
    They both come from Old Germanic and the roots, though similar, are by no means identical. The etymology of swallow (the bird) - Germanic swalwon is apparently disputed. My guess, from the copious amount of German and Danish words in the origin section is that the two are not directly related.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 23:01
  • 1
    @JohnLawler I suppose this is what might be called a swallow - a giant sink-hole which opened up, a week ago, on a housing estate in St Albans (25 miles north of central London). It was 66 feet across and 35 feet deep! Fortunately it happened in the night and no one fell in!
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 23:08
  • 1
    Judging by German Schwalbe, schlucken, Dutch zwaluw, slikken, Swedish svala, svälja I don't see any relation between the bird's name and the verb for taking a gulp of a liquid. The two words have got identical form, but belong to different word families.
    – rogermue
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 14:45

2 Answers 2


From the OED in relation to swallow (the bird):

swallow ▪ I.swallow, n.1 (ˈswɒləʊ) Forms: 1 s(u)ualu(u)ae, swealwe, swalowe, -uwe, -awe, 1, 4 swalewe, swalwe, swolwe, 4 swalugh, swalu, 4–6 swalow(e, 5 swalue, sualowe, 5–7 swallowe, 6– swallow. [Com. Teut. (not recorded for Gothic): OE. swealwe wk. fem. = OS. suala, MLG. swalewe, swalue, MDu. swâluwe, -ewe (Du. zwaluw), OHG. swalawa, swalwa (MHG. swal(e)we, G. schwalbe), ON. svala for *svǫlva (MSw., Sw. svala, Da. svale):—OTeut. *swalwōn-, the etymological meaning of which is disputed.

Continental Germanic dialects have also forms of other types: without w in the final syllable, e.g. MHG. swal, swale, MLG. swale, WFris. sweal, swel; with m-suffix, e.g. HG. (local) schwalm, schwalme, Flem. swaelem; forms with dim. suffix are widespread in LG. and Fris., e.g. MLG. swalike, swal(e)ke, LG. swaalke, Flem. swalcke (Kilian), EFris., NFris. swâlk, WFris. swealtsje, sweltsje.]

  1. a. A bird of the genus Hirundo, esp. H. rustica, a well-known migratory bird with long pointed wings and forked tail, having a swift curving flight and a twittering cry, building mud-nests on buildings, etc., and popularly regarded as a harbinger of summer (cf. c). a 700 Epinal Gloss. 498 Hirundo, sualuuae. c 950 Guthlac x. (1909) 143 Þa comon þær sæmninga in twa swalewan fleoᵹan, and hi..heora sang upahofon. c 1000 Sax. Leechd. II. 156 Ᵹenim swealwan, ᵹebærn..to ahsan. Ibid. III. 44 Ᵹenim swolwan nest. c 1320 Sir Tristr. 1366 A swalu ich herd sing. c 1374 Chaucer Troylus ii. 64 The swalwe Proigne, with a sorwful lay,..gan make hir weymentinge. 1398 Trevisa Barth. De P.R. xii. xxii. (Bodl. MS.) lf. 122 b/1 In making of nestes þe swalowe is moste sliȝe. a 1450 Knt. de la Tour lxxx. 102 The dunge of swalues fell into the eyen of this good man Tobie. a 1529 Skelton P. Sparowe 404 The chattrynge swallow. 1579 Spenser Sheph. Cal. Mar. 11 The Swallow peepes out of her nest. 1611 Shakes. Wint. T. iv. iv. 119 Daffadils, That come before the Swallow dares...

I suspect the reference to the Old Teutonic swalwōn- by the OED, and its comment that the etymological meaning 'is disputed' might be a reference to Kluge's 1891 'An Etymological Dictionary of The German Language'.

Kluge has this to say:

No certain explanation can be given of the primary form swalwôn, f.; perhaps it represents swalgwôn-, pre-Teutonic swalkuân, to which Greek ἅλκύων is also traced.

Noting that ἅλκύων is Greek for halcyon, or kingfisher. All of this leaves me better informed, but none the wiser. There's more to be told about the pre-Teutonic roots perhaps and the link with that Greek word.

  • 1
    While there is - seemingly - ample evidence that the word for the bird and the word for the act of devouring come from distinct roots, there is a hint of a connection between the word for the bird and the word 'swale' , an East Anglian word with possible Norse connections, and a range of meanings including a balcony or gallery, a cool place, or a moist or marshy depression in a generally flat tract of land.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 16:29

They're unrelated. They come from different roots and happen to have arrived at the same sound.

  • 2
    Could you expand on your answer a little? It would be greatly improved with references or supporting evidence that haven't been offered by other contributors here,
    – JHCL
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 15:47
  • I spent quite a while searching the web for any evidence that the words shared any roots. I found none. I'm sure everything I've looked at has already been referenced; I just thought it was past time that someone actually say it in an answer. In terms of research, my sources are no more useful than the ones already provided by the asker; there is simply no evidence of a connection. Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 1:47
  • @RoseofWords Sometimes a few words is enough. As you say, it was a question which attracted some thoughtful comments and I was only waiting on a formal answer to award the bounty while acknowledging the efforts of all.
    – John Mack
    Commented Oct 14, 2015 at 12:45
  • 2
    You spent longer composing a comment than writing an answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 18, 2015 at 23:14
  • No. I spent hours searching the web for any possible connection between the two words and arrived at a short and simple answer. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 18:35

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.